The former pro turned author, vlogger, KOM hunter and outspoken critic of dopers tells Cyclist about finding fame after retirement thanks to social media
Cyclist: Your new book, Draft Animals, is all about the life of a pro cyclist. Was being a Worldtour domestique punishing or fun?
Phil Gaimon: Both. The thing is, it’s fun because you don’t have any real pressure. Being a domestique is so damn easy when your finish line is 10k to go. I remember bringing bottles to [Cannondale-drapac teammate] Andrew Talansky and he’s got to go and keep racing while I’m already dead, and I’d be like, ‘Have fun with that, buddy.’
But the downside of being a domestique is that because you’re a low priority rider, your job is to stay 90% all year, so you don’t get to taper off. Sometimes you’ll have a four-day stage race and two days off, and then a five-day stage race straight away. You can always just be 90% but you don’t get to buy a plane ticket to visit your mom because you don’t know where the f*** you’re gonna be next year or next week. Cyc: You recently ran into trouble with Fabian Cancellara for a throwaway comment in your book, do you feel being open backfired?
PG: All I’m doing in that whole part of the book is saying, ‘I came into the sport and here’s what was going on right before. Everybody was on drugs and I heard this one guy was on a motor. It’s crazy!’
But you don’t know how bad the media can be until they write about you. I’m glad Fabian and I have found a way to make something good out of it now. I will be racing Fabian for charity and announcing that soon.
Cyc: You have a more active social media presence than most pro riders. Do you think the risk of negative publicity like that is the reason other pros are more guarded?
PG: In my experience as a pro there was little upside in having a social media presence, because there was potential to get in trouble even if you’re wearing the wrong sunglasses. At no point did I get a bonus for using social media and getting exposure for the team.
I think it bit me in the ass too, because I was too loud and I think I became too outspoken. Mostly riders are just supposed to do their job and let the team tell the story.
The problem is that the model of pro sports is that you exist for your sponsors. You put your team out there, then you tell your story and you create sponsor impressions. But in cycling the sponsor is often a billionaire somewhere who just wants to be in the car at Roubaix and it’s not really about exposure for the sponsors. The whole angle is skewed and the incentives aren’t quite there.
Even on Cannondale, half of the paychecks were written by JV’S [Jonathan Vaughters] rich friends.
Cyc: Doing your own media projects seems to have raised your profile more than your performances while in the pro peloton. Is this something other pros should learn from?
PG: Well, the teams have middlemen who are in charge of media and exposure and I think it does a giant disservice to the whole sport. The sport is already complicated and then they add this layer. Me being on Youtube should not have raised my platform
P as an athlete, but pro cycling has a credibility and an access problem.
Now it’s a lot easier for me to approach sponsors and offer my story to the public. I can choose my own sponsors so it’s definitely more honest and I think that’s made it easier for my audience to relate to me. And because of that, sponsors now find me more valuable. Which is ludicrous. That’s just a failure of the pro side of the sport to tell a story and make it available.
Cyc: Were you surprised that your old team Cannondale-drapac so nearly became bankrupt recently?
PG: No I wasn’t surprised at that! But I think that Vaughters was perhaps the first director to realise doping is going to kill this sport and that he better do something about it. So it was a very smart move to base a team around the concept of being clean when no one else was doing that.
Pro cycling could have turned into pro wrestling by now, and I think Vaughters did a lot to help prevent that. But on the team you see a lot of waste and you see a lot of sponsors that aren’t treated as well as you’d want them to be. It’s just like I said, that the whole model of pro cycling is skewed.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever had to stop on a climb before, but with about 7km to go to the summit of Mauna Kea, I had to stop and I just sat on the guardrail in the snow and ate a Clif Bar’
Cyc: Do you plan to carry on creating videos for your Youtube channel, Worst Retirement Ever?
PG: Well, this all started because I was going for this doper’s Strava KOM in LA [an ex-pro who we can’t name here]. That was what first got media attention and made sponsors hit me, so I carried on making videos of me going for Koms. It’s fun but it’s also super-dumb and not that sustainable. So what I’ve always wanted to do, and I tried to sell this show to Hollywood, is make a travel show all about bikes.
So my idea was to go to a place and do a bike ride with a local, and experience Vancouver or New York or Park City from a bit of a different angle, riding but also stopping for a coffee, or whatever – all the stuff I couldn’t do when I was a pro. I almost got that going as a show in Hollywood, but now I’ve decided, f*** it, I’ll make it on Youtube.
Cyc: Do you think that more riders will look to social media as a career option instead of slogging it out in obscurity on the pro cycling circuit?
PG: It’s already happening, and yes I think there’s going to be more to it.
I think cyclists creating content on Youtube is like a version of pro cycling. I mean, people enjoy watching me doing 400 watts up a hill and I have sponsors supporting it. That’s a version of pro cycling that in a way feels a lot more legitimate than it did when I was on Team Jelly Belly making $2,000 a year and sleeping in my car.
Cyc: Do you still enjoy riding?
PG: Yesterday was my birthday and I rode for six hours with a bunch of friends. It’s surprising how much I still like it, which is part of why I think I retired at the right time even though I didn’t really want to. But it was far before I got sick of it and there’s no other way I want to spend a good day.
Cyc: What’s your favourite climb?
PG: The one that I want to go back to, and the one I think about the most, is Mauna Kea in Hawaii [arguably the world’s hardest climb – see Cyclist issue 64]. I climbed it on New Year’s Eve 2016 with Kevin Systrom [the founder of Instagram]. I don’t think I’ve ever had to stop on a climb before, but with about 7km to go to the summit I had to stop and I just sat on the guardrail in the snow and ate a Clif Bar.
It was also an emotional day for me as it was officially my last day as a pro. So I just emptied myself and when I
P finished I knew that I would never be a pro cyclist again and would never race again. It was really emotional for me.
What I didn’t know was that this is what I would do now – I just f*** around on cool climbs and just empty myself for no reason.
Cyc: Some ex-pros tend to let themselves go after racing. Why have you remained so fit after retiring?
PG: I don’t know, but part of it is because I guess I was too young to retire. So I kind of made Strava Koms my job. I don’t know anybody who could be an athlete at that level, to see your body as a project and be fit, and then let it go. I hate being out of shape. It doesn’t feel good when I take two weeks off in October.
I feel like no matter what, I’m gonna be a fit person. I think there are people who retire and get fat and I don’t know what’s with those guys, and then there’s a category of guys who retire and become fitter in different ways.
‘If you’re in a NON-MPCC team – a team that does the tramadol and does the sleeping pills or whatever (and that’s a lot of f***ing teams still!) – you’re not hiring the guy with the “clean” tattoo’
Cyc: You have a ‘clean’ tattoo on your arm. Did your view on doping ever create friction in the pro peloton?
PG: Well, I think everybody rolled their eyes. When I got it, I was very far from winning any races in the US – I was 25 and I never thought I was going to Europe. I never thought I was going to have to be on a team bus with a doper.
Then three years later that bit me in the ass because I was good enough to go to Europe and now I had to make friends with these guys and and they were like, ‘Who’s this dickhead with the clean tattoo? Now bring me my bottles.’
I still feel like the clean thing kept a lot of teams from ever responding to my emails. If you think about it, why would they have? Because if you’re in a NON-MPCC team [anti-doping union Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible], a team that does the tramadol and does the sleeping pills or whatever – and that’s a lot of f***ing teams still – you’re not hiring the guy with the ‘clean’ tattoo.
Cyc: Having begun your career in the shadow of Lance Armstrong, how do you welcome his return to the sport as a podcaster and commentator?
PG: I find it very frustrating. I think that Lance is the reason that I got my pee tested. He’s done a very good job getting his story out there, which is ‘level playing field’ and ‘everybody was doping’, and the thing is a lot of that is not wrong. But the reality is he innovated in the field of doping and he was the greatest at doping. He rolled the dice and he came up the biggest and then he came down the biggest. That’s how gambling works.
But also when you hear stories and you know people who had to deal with him – I know Frankie and Betsy Andreu well – you think that this isn’t a guy who should be around people.
But I live in the country that elected Donald Trump and where OJ Simpson is coming back into favour and it’s not a battle worth fighting. Part of why I’m over pro cycling is because I don’t want to watch this process where Lance is announcing the Tour de France in two years’ time. I just find that gross.
While still riding professionally, Gaimon wrote a book entitled Pro Cycling On $10 A Day, about the harsh realities of life in the peloton. After retiring, he penned another book about his time as a domestique, Draft Animals, and set up a popular...
Gaimon began his pro career in 2009 with American team Jelly Belly. His final team was Worldtour outfit Cannondale-drapac, which he joined in 2016, but he announced his retirement at the end of that season when he failed to secure a place on a...
As a prolific writer and blogger, and an outspoken critic of doping, Gaimon’s comments have landed him in hot water, but also endeared him to a wide cycling audience, many of whom would not have known his name when he was plying his trade as a...